Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Even the untouchables can rise economically

The caste system in India was a disgrace against the rights of those whom Indians regarded as the low of the low—the untouchables. Even the blacks in the United States prior to the 1960s were treated better than the untouchables in India were.

The blacks in the US had to sit at the back of the bus, they couldn’t use washrooms or drinking fountains or even restaurants that whites used and further, most of them weren’t even permitted to vote. But the untouchables were treated even worse in India.

Dalit is a designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as ‘Untouchable’. While the discrimination based on caste system (not the caste system itself) has been abolished under the Indian constitution, evidence still exists that there is still discrimination and prejudice against Dalits in India. The word ‘Dalit’ comes from the Sanskrit, and means ‘ground’, ‘suppressed’, ‘crushed’, or ‘broken to pieces’.

In the context of traditional Hindu society, Dalit status has often been historically associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as any work involving leatherwork, butchering, or removal of rubbish, animal carcasses and waste. Dalits work as manual labourers cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. For centuries, they could never hope to rise above those occupations.

Engaging in these activities was considered to be polluting to the individual, and this pollution was considered contagious. As a result, Dalits were commonly segregated and banned from full participation in Hindu social life. Dalits were not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same temples, wear shoes in the presence of an upper caste, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls as those in the higher castes. They could not enter a school and they were required to live outside of the villages. By 2011, more than 200 million people in India were considered as Untouchables—people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deemed them impure—less than human.

Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: "Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers"; "Dalit tortured by cops for three days"; "Dalit 'witch' paraded naked in Bihar"; "Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool"; "7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash"; "5 Dalits lynched in Haryana"; "Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked"; "Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits".

The people of India should feel ashamed for mistreating their fellow human beings in such an outrageous manner. Many do feel ashamed but unfortunately, a great many do not. They think that they are above others who are of a lower caste than they are.

Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits. However, the so-called ‘untouchables’ have within their ranks extremely intelligent people who have risen out of the filth they were forced to endure and who now are much more superior to those in the higher castes who abused them.

Ashok Khade of India was born into India’s Dalit, or ‘untouchable’ caste. Khade was raised in a mud hut in a rural village and grew up poor and hungry. On his barefoot trudge to school decades ago, a young Ashok Khade passed inescapable reminders of what he was: the well from which he was not allowed to drink; the temple where he was not permitted to worship. At school, he took his place on the floor in a part of the classroom built a step lower than the rest. Untouchables like him, considered to be spiritually and physically unclean, could not be permitted to pollute their upper-caste neighbors and classmates.

But as a young man, he managed to land a position as an apprentice draftsman at a government-run ship-building company. He worked extra hard, learned as much as he could, and after a few years, he took the enormous risk of launching his own company which builds and repairs off-shore oil rigs. His company filled a new and growing need in the marketplace, as India’s emerging economy developed an ever-growing appetite for oil, then he began expanding his business into the Middle East. Today, Khade’s $100 million company employs 4,500 people.

He is the living proof that everyone who has a normal brain has the ability to rise above the filth they may have been in as a child and surpass the efforts of those who thought that they were better than them. Khade is just one example of the democratizing impact of capitalism and free market economics on Indian society and in many other parts of the world.

For most of India’s history after independence, the government was the only thing that could improve the ‘Dalits’ lot. For nearly all Indians but especially for Dalits, a government job, even a low-level one, was the surest ticket out of poverty, guaranteeing education, housing, a salary and a pension. Few in the socialist government or in India’s generally risk-averse society saw entrepreneurship as an attractive option.

But that has started to change. Since 1991, when India’s economy opened to the world and began its astonishing growth trajectory, hundreds of thousands of new businesses have been created, leaving an opening for millions of people who never imagined that owning their own business was even possible. A small handful of Dalits were uniquely poised to take advantage. They had the drive, the ambition, the willingness to work hard and the intelligence to rise above their station in life.

It is indeed most unfortunate that so many so-called untouchables were denied the opportunity to go to schools of higher learning. If they had been given those opportunities, India as a nation would surely have benefited. But when a nation suppresses 200 million of its people so that they remain illiterate, as a nation, it will truly suffer. India is only learning that now. The United States began learning that lesson in the 1960s. No one prior to that would have ever envisioned that the head of the armed forces in the US would have been a black man or later, the president of the United States would be a black man. It is conceivable that some day in the future, the leader of India will have been a former untouchable. When that happens, India will have recognize that it is not their caste that makes each of their citizens succeed—it is their drive, their ambition, their willingness to work hard and their intelligence that will make them succeed in their endevours. And when that happens, everyone benefits.

I speak with some authority on this subject. I was initially raised in a two-room shack with no water, electricity or an indoor toilet. My crib was the bottom drawer of a beat-up dresser and I failed in school three times. But I put myself through university and ended up addressing over a hundred nations as a speaker while attending United Nations conferences around the world on matters of justice and human rights. If people like me and like Ashok Khade can better ourselves as we grow older, so can anyone else who has the drive, the ambition, the willingness to work hard and possesses normal intelligence. We are not untouchables. We are like everyone else who makes the effort to better themselves in life.

No comments: